Elaine May's A New Leaf

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“Unseemly? Unseemly!? Harold, after her behavior tonight, anything I do will be seemly. Never have I seen one woman in whom every social grace was so lacking. Did I say she was primitive? I retract that. She’s feral. I’ve never spent a more physically destructive evening in my life. I am nauseated. I limp. And I can feel my teeth rotting away from an excess of sugar that no amount of toothpaste can dislodge. I will taste those damn Malaga coolers forever. That woman is a menace not only to health but to Western civilization as we know it. She doesn’t deserve to live. Forget I said that.”

“She’s about to drop that teacup…” Teacups, the European kind with handles, the pretty porcelain things you balance on saucers and daintily sip while eating crumpets or finger sandwiches or whatever little crumbly confections are served, seem a cruel creation intent on exposing the shy and the nervous. In Elaine May’s A New Leaf, this is made abundantly clear as May’s heiress/botany professor, Henrietta Lowell, attempts to sip at a posh afternoon tea party while she sits on a chair up against a wall, dressed in a prim suit with pearls, her handbag resting next to her. She is noticeably not seated at a table with the other guests (Mr. and Mrs. Sims, Toot and Roggie, Dr. and Mrs. Daryl Hitler, etc., “Excuse me, you’re not by any chance related to the Boston Hitlers?” Walter Matthau’s Henry Graham asks) as she politely and nervously looks around the room, gracious to others but in her own world. She is utterly charming. To us. To Henry Graham, she is horrifying. But as he’s searching, quite frantically, for a wealthy wife to save him from poverty, she’s exactly the one he’s been looking for. Henry sits next to a man with a crooked bowtie and tape on his glasses (a nice, perfectly ruffled blue blood touch that Paul Fussell would have studied for categorization) who reveals to him how enormously wealthy and alone Henrietta is. No family, nothing. Henry says: “Rich, single, isolated . . . she’s about to drop that teacup. Oh, she’s perfect.”

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She does drop that teacup and it causes quite a scene. Her hostess requests another cup of tea while Henrietta nervously apologizes, drops her gloves, drops her glasses, drops the teaspoon resting on the new cup and sits back down to dab and blot, or whatever the hostess has been annoyingly suggesting as she fusses over Henrietta. Henry makes his move, but Henrietta’s head collides with his teacup, spilling tea on the carpet. The snowball effect of that damn teacup in the trembling hands of poor, innocent Henrietta has now upset the rude hostess who berates her in front of the party: “Henrietta, is this some kind of joke? Because if it is, I do not find it amusing. If your nerves aren’t steady enough to hold a cup and saucer in your hand, then you shouldn’t be drinking tea.” This is when Henry defends her tea-drinking honor (as he should) and in another movie would be seen as the purely gallant romantic gent. Henrietta is the damsel in distress here – the dropping the handkerchief routine – only, dropped by a woman continually dropping her teacup and everything else in her hands, and one who is oblivious to dropping handkerchiefs for any other reason save for they’re in the way of her teacup. She’s also been spotted by a gold digging predator – she’s about as vulnerable as that cup balancing on the saucer – no wonder it keeps slipping.

There’s no romance or flirtation here, Henry has other motives, and yet, as written, directed and acted by May (one of greatest living writers, directors and comic talents), it is both oddly romantic and hilariously cynical. Henry’s heart is beating black, but we feel a surge of victory for this pair. Who wouldn’t want a cantankerous Walter Matthau disparaging a discourteous woman with, “Madam, I have seen many examples of perversion in my time but your erotic obsession with your carpet is probably the most grotesque and certainly the most boring I have ever encountered.” As Henrietta would say, and does say, often, “Heavens.” Never mind he might murder you after your wedding day.

A-new-leaf-5The sweetness and darkness of May’s brilliant first feature (she’s directed four, all excellent: The Heartbreak KidMikey and NickyIshtar) looks at this absurd world, the relationships we find ourselves in (or create) and the institutions we march through with a jaundiced yet utterly human eye. May’s genius with the teacup, that quivering teacup and that woman’s stupid carpet, is one, among many moments in which May dissects a detail, whether small, like crumbs rolling off of Henrietta’s dress, or large, like Henry losing all of his money, and shows us how painfully recognizable it is, even among such extraordinary characters. And Henry is certainly not a common type of man. An entitled trust fund playboy, a millionaire who has never worked a day in his life, Henry seems to only love his red sports car (a Ferrari), himself, of course, and maybe (maybe) he harbors a fondness for his butler (George Rose). He spends too much money – something that is called to his attention via his long-suffering lawyer, Beckett (William Redfield), who despises him, in a scene that reveals just how hilariously out of touch Henry really is. So used to luxury, he can’t wrap his mind around destitution, much less the word capital:

Beckett: “I’m trying to explain to you that it is impossible to pay the check because your expenses have exceeded your income to such a point that you have exhausted your capital. Now you have no capital, no income, therefore no funds for the check, you see?

Henry: Don’t treat me as though I were a child, Mr. Beckett. I am as aware of what it means to have no capital as you are.

Beckett: Oh, good.

Henry: Now, what about this check?

Beckett: Well, are you entirely sure that you really do understand what I mean by capital, Mr. Graham? You see, you’ve exhausted the capital. I can’t cover the check because the check is for $6,000 and you don’t have $6,000. In other words, you don’t have $60.

Henry: Come to the point, Beckett.

The point is, he’s broke and as suggested by his sensible butler Harold, he’s going to need to do “what any gentleman of similar breeding and temperament would do” in such a position. Henry responds, “Suicide?”  Harold corrects him: marriage. “Marriage? You mean to a woman?” Henry asks.  This question isn’t studied further but based on Henry’s attempts at dating and his general disgust for the female sex, we may wonder if he’d rather make love to his Ferrari. In a couple of painful dates, May doesn’t spare both the ridiculousness of desperation and how terribly misanthropic and neurotically fussy Henry is. He’s even terrified by breasts (one of Matthau’s funniest looks of abject horror). As a date declares herself a woman who wants, needs and desires love, melodramatically hollering out: “Oh, I am alive! I want to give love!” Henry yells: “No! Don’t let them out!” He’s an asshole, Matthau is working a kind of upper crust W. C. Fields type, but anyone whose been on a disastrous date might relate to this moment – it’s a bit much. May understands there is a judging prick inside many of us, particularly when we’re rolling through a series of terrible dates. You don’t exactly feel sorry for Henry, you just recognize those moments of distaste. And cringe. For everyone involved.

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Offsetting the woman about to pull out her breasts is May’s Henrietta, who can’t even put on her Grecian-style nightgown properly. We don’t cringe for Henrietta here, we find her endearingly dizzy, and really very beautiful even before she gets that thing on. This is one of May and Matthau’s finest comic scenes – Matthau is aiding her so strangely patiently (it wouldn’t be as funny if he were yelling at her, or even if he were overly cranky, he’s simply matter of fact about getting that nightgown on her); and it’s so ingenious the way they talk back and forth about the “arm-hole” that it becomes something like a seduction. Sex scenes are often tedious and typical, so watching May and Matthau fumble with her meant-to-be alluring gown becomes their sort of sex scene. It’s also hilarious and disarmingly sweet:

Henry: I just think you have your head through the arm-hole. If you’ll just stand up for a minute. That’s it. There you are. I think, you see, you have your head through the arm-hole. Now, pick your arm up. No, not that one. Put that one down. That arm down. Let’s pick this arm up. Thaaaat’s it. That’s it. Now, here we are.  Just get this over …

Henrietta: Let me put my glasses …

Henry: Oh, here. Let me put your glasses down here. Alright. Now, hold it. No, just a minute. See, you have your … you have your head through the arm-hole. We have to get your head out… out of the armhole.

Henrietta: See, both of the holes look very similar.

Henry: Where is your head-hole?

Henrietta: Well, I thought my head was in it.

Henry: No. You had your head in the arm-hole. Where are you now?

Henrietta:  I’m still where I was.

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For a moment, you think Henry might enjoy Henrietta in that arm-hole nightgown, but once correctly fitted, he still thinks she looks “strange.” This is during their honeymoon, and, in her darkly screwball style here, May digs into the cynicism of marriage. It’s an extreme example – Henry rushes into matrimony with Henrietta or he’ll owe his uncle (James Coco), whom he’s borrowed 50K from, everything. That’s the only reason. We barely have time to ponder if Henry secretly likes her for a second, though their chemistry is so perfectly in tune at being out of tune that we suspect, something. Any fraction of warmth from Henry, even with an arm-hole, makes us wonder. Nevertheless, after agonizingly enduring Henrietta’s crumbs, her love of cheap wine that gets smeared all over her lips, her clothes with price tags still hanging from them and her botany obsession, he takes the plunge – with the intention of murdering her. People marry for a lot of reasons and it’s often women who are singled out as those waiting for their rich husbands to drop. Here, Henry is the gold digger and the femme fatale. It’s acerbically funny and touching watching Henrietta fall for Henry – a meaner kind of Ernst Lubitsch as Matthau’s thieving cad is no elegant Herbert Marshall (and he’s murderous), and stealing isn’t as sensuous, and yet, like Lubitsch, May relishes a kind of rebellious sophistication that makes us root for this non-traditional pairing: two disparate people living among those obsessed with class and their carpet – one yearning for languorous luxury, the other, a highly intelligent billionaire searching for ferns and fronds. Why not? Unlike anyone near the altar in the magnificently acidic Heartbreak Kid, we can’t help it – we want these two to work out, in spite of Henry’s murderous intentions.

Would we have wanted it to work out if Henry was more murderous? I actually think so. May’s picture was even darker and longer in its original cut, supposedly sheared at the behest of Robert Evans at Paramount, which upset May enough to sue (unsuccessfully) and attempt to remove her name from the film. Reportedly, in her preferred version, Henry poisons and kills two characters (her lawyer, Jack Weston, and one of her servants, William Hickey). Either too long or too bleak or both, it was cut (and that footage has never been found), leaving a happier ending, however happy you take the ending of the picture (Henry almost really does kill her – the last-minute change of heart based on a fern isn’t the strongest indication he’s forever a new man).

But it’s a testament to May’s genius (and Matthau’s) that the film could work either way.  It's, to me, still one of the greatest comedies of the 1970s -- and one of my favorite films. Recently I was asked to do a list of the greatest films from the late 60s-early 1980s (which was nearly impossible for me -- I can't even think of that list without realizing what I didn't have on it -- including another May film, Mikey & Nicky, which was on it, and then swapped out in the cruelty and sometimes, coin tossing of list-making -- and the omissions go on), and A New Leaf was on it. I was concerned for a bit because May herself, as discussed, wasn't happy with the film. But, well, as I said, it's one of the greatest. And I love her in the film. Even in a version she finds compromised, it's the one. 

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As May said in an early, brilliant Mike Nichols Elaine May routine, it all feels “suicidally beautiful.” Either Henry really is that cold-blooded and we’ll have to grapple with his malevolence as we find him strangely appealing, or perhaps, in love, perhaps a coward (or both), he truly can’t commit murder. Does he find an odd pleasure in sticking up for Henrietta after she drops a teacup on an obnoxious woman’s carpet? A woman far more obnoxious than Henrietta? After all, everyone seems insufferable to Henry. As he said so witheringly and ironically to Harold: “I think I have found, God help us, Ms. Right.” Maybe he did.

Originally published at the New Beverly 


Happy Birthday Elliott Gould

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Happy Birthday to one of the all-time greats and one of the coolest of the cool Elliott Gould.

From my 2019 New Beverly interview with Elliott Gould about The Long Goodbye -- on working with Sterling Hayden:

Elliott Gould: You know the history was that Bob cast Dan Blocker and then Dan Blocker died and it was almost the end of the picture. And then I thought about John Huston, but then Bob cast Sterling Hayden. And I asked to meet Sterling Hayden; I just wanted to sit alone with him. And in a dark room in the house that Bob had been living in…
 
KM: The house in Malibu…
 
EG: Yes, which was the Wade House [in the movie]. I was in a room like this, and he had recently come back from Ireland where he had some work with R.D. Laing… and so I knew that Sterling knew that I knew that Sterling knew that I understood him… So, at one point when we were in Pasadena working at the sanitarium where we find Sterling Hayden in that cottage that he’s in with Henry Gibson (you know, that specific cottage was where W.C. Fields lived the last part of his life…), And when Altman would be stressed… Sterling would say to me, I don’t know how he phrased it exactly, but, “Is the old man giving you a hard time?” something like that… And I said, “A little bit.” It didn’t have to do with the work but it probably had to do with my response to what Bob needed, and I’m always looking for something. And Sterling said, “Just vamp.” [And] what does vamp mean? It means, to hold time, meaning, when you vamp with music, you hold time.
 
KM: Sterling Hayden and you … your chemistry together is beautiful.
 
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EG: And the kind of man that he was! That scene where we’re sitting down and [having the drink] … Bob had designed it so that the camera is circling the two of us. And we couldn’t even know whether it would be able to be edited, but I didn’t have any doubt, and I don’t think that Bob has doubt, and so we did that with the aquavit.
 
KM: And part of it was improvised?
 
EG: I knew there were certain pieces of information that had to be in that scene so I could help with that [improvising], otherwise it was just about getting to know and see this relationship between these two different generations of men, and that was pretty amazing…

Read the entire interview here.

 


Aquarium Drunkard: Play It as It Lays

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"Existentially, I'm getting a hamburger.”

I was interviewed by Eric Hehr for his excellent VIDEODROME column (read all of his essays) at the great Aquarium Drunkard to discuss one of my favorites -- Frank Perry’s masterful Play It As It Lays.

Talking Tuesday Weld, Anthony Perkins, Perry, and lots of driving in Los Angeles and more and more. 

From my interview:

I guess I really connected with this film because of how Perry explores everything: the enigmatic, the way we feel when depressed, the mystery and the ghosts; things that I frequently feel in Los Angeles. There is a beauty to that. I’m not sure if Frank Perry thought this was all beautiful in real life, but I think a lot of what is in this film is beautifully expressed and composed, like the snaking freeways. I could get into more specific shots and things like that because that’s important — they fuse with Maria’s search for her narrative. She’s almost like her own editor. Not surprisingly, Didion was fascinated by film editing, and Perry expertly conveys this with his innovative editing. Maria’s an actress and a model, but I feel that this is a woman who maybe really wants to be a writer. She’s trying to write her own life in a sense, and everyone else around her is interpreting her. Her husband is a director inspired by her story. She breaks through it all by telling her own truth, which is really interesting — that she bluntly says things. She cuts through everything.

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Here's my essay on Play It as It Lays for the New Beverly.

And, thanks for the wonderful discussion, Eric. 

Read the entire interview here.


Marilyn’s Method: MM on Criterion

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Marilyn’s Method: My piece for Criterion on Marilyn Monroe, her performances in The Misfits, Niagara & Bus Stop, specifically, and her journey and power as an actress and an artist:

“Do you want me to turn them loose?” This is what cowboy Perce asks a sad-eyed Roslyn in John Huston’s elegiac The Misfits (1961), and that one question about untying the mustangs he and fellow wranglers Gay (Clark Gable) and Guido (Eli Wallach) have captured—beautiful horses who will be turned to dog food—is so extraordinarily moving in its quietly weighed delivery that it’s breathtaking. It’s moving because it’s Montgomery Clift asking the question, and because of the power of Marilyn Monroe’s Roslyn and her chemistry with Clift. But it’s sublimely moving because of Roslyn’s preceding scene instigating the request—her scream in the desolate landscape, her testimony:

Killers! Murderers! You’re liars! All of you liars! You’re only happy when you can see something die! Why don’t you kill yourself to be happy? You and your God’s country! Freedom! I pity you! You’re three dear, sweet, dead men!

That big, blistering moment is filmed in a gorgeous and almost unmerciful long shot, with a distant Monroe, her blond hair and denim in the desert; viewers fix their eyes to see her better as she rages—a brilliant choice by Huston. By forgoing a close-up, he makes Monroe’s speech feel almost unexpected and shocking, and, oddly, more powerful. There are three men who, throughout the movie, have observed this woman with bewilderment, lust, love, and anger. She’s represented multiple ideas, dreams, or wishes for them (the script was written by her soon-to-be ex-husband, playwright Arthur Miller), but she’s now screaming and nearly tearing her hair out—almost as if to make herself flesh and blood.

Marilyn as Roslyn espouses part of the movie’s thesis—a potential sledgehammer—without the directness feeling unnatural, underscoring the end-of-the-line lives these men lead and the simultaneous empathy and anger she feels toward them. Clift’s Perce, who is already feeling lousy about capturing the mustangs, so much so that he doesn’t even want to be paid for it, gazes with sadness and, perhaps, shame; Gable’s Gay looks on concerned, disquieted, and Wallach’s Guido, at that moment, is all annoyance and anger: “She’s crazy,” he says. “They’re all crazy. You try not to believe it because you need them.”

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Read it all here.

 


Frank and Eleanor Perry's Last Summer

6a00d83451cb7469e201bb09890fe3970d-800wiFrom my piece that ran at the New Beverly:

Memories of adolescence can come to you in a multitude of ways. Some thoughts are often so hazy, and in many of us, so strange, that even happy reminiscences take on a peculiar sensation of both centered familiarity (we are all still who we are), our teenage years directly in our body and in our being, and yet, entirely remote. All that excitable, depressed or terrified youth has drifted so far off shore that one must stand on their toes and block the sun to see it bobbing in the water. Other times, it hits you like a sharp pain and you are living it all over again, right in your core. This can come to you happily but that rarely seems to be the case – wistfulness usually greets a nice memory. It’s the trauma, loneliness, alienation, guilt – those sensations – that overwhelm us while lost in thought or living through a crisis or from very little drama at all. You could be looking out of a car window or looking at a fish tank or talking to a grocery clerk who treats you like you’re 14 and something just overcomes you. You could, like John Cheever (writing in his journals), be walking outside:

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“Walking back from the river I remember the galling loneliness of my adolescence, from which I do not seem to have completely escaped. It is the sense of the voyeur, the lonely, lonely boy with no role in life but to peer in at the lighted windows of other people’s contentment and vitality.”

As Cheever so movingly observed, these are senses one can never escape – because, well, one just can’t. Frank Perry’s Last Summer is suffused with all of these impressions, a movie that reflects the sexually charged, weird, freeing and, at times, inexplicably perverse feelings that swirled in and around you as you were about to touch adulthood (which seems like it happens too fast). As you watch these teenagers on screen, you are right there with them, and yet, at the same time, you feel removed, observing from a distance. In direction, setting, texture, light and sound, the picture feels powerfully foggy, as if these are the last teenagers on earth, or a collection of sensitives we’ve conjured from our own memories. It’s quite an artistic and emotional feat – this in-body/out of body experience the movie manages to convey, a pull in and float out – and you drift along with these characters almost in a hallucinatory state. The sharper moments come to you like Cheever describing his young loneliness – they are “galling.”

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The movie begins with what will appear to be a sad but sweet moment – two healthy, tanned, good looking blonde boys meet a lovely, bikini-clad, long-haired brunette girl on the beach at Fire Island as she leans over what appears to be a dead seagull. It’s actually still alive she tells them, with one remarking unconcerned, “Not for long.” In another movie, you might think immediately of innocence crushed or the kid’s yearning for the seagull to be free, but Perry (and his wife and collaborator, the great Eleanor Perry, who adapted the screenplay from Evan Hunter’s novel) are not trafficking in such thudding clichés. Already the picture feels different, edgier, and these kids appear like how teenagers actually are – more interested in the girl than in the seagull, the girl sizing up her power in this dynamic of two cute boys. Also, there appears to be no one else around – not on the beach anyway – no other kids at all – giving the picture an extra intense lyricism. There’s a dark undercurrent to the sunny exterior with the focus on just these kids – outsiders seem unwelcome or even alien. Later, one alien will eventually appear.

Sandy (Barbara Hershey) snaps back flippantly at the boys, Peter (Richard Thomas) and Dan (Bruce Davison), after requesting they help her move the gull off the beach, which one warns could give her rabies: “Rabies my ass!” she says. Certainly her looks are enough to interest them, but something about her ease with her body and informal exchanges, her intelligence is especially alluring to them, and they indeed help her bring that gull back to her mother’s beach house. You never see any of these kid’s parents in the movie, giving the picture a focused, particularly desolate feel, the kid’s alienation more trapped than exuberant.

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Swiftly, the three become best friends, so inseparable that it verges on a sexual three-way, but not quite at intercourse. The boys want to sleep with Sandy, of course. Smart-ass, rather typical Dan, more intent to bang her than the more sensitive Peter, who suddenly feels badly when he bugs her to remove her top – and she does – discuss the coming-of-age query of “should they or shouldn’t they?” These conversations are between boys who are both insecure and confident – or in a more sinister view – boys who will ask or demand. Sandy is free with her body, unafraid to pull her top off or roll all over the hormone raging boys, her hormones raging as well, laughing and drinking and dancing; washing their hair, and in a dark movie theater, letting one feel up her breasts, while the other feels up her legs and up to her panties. It’s a bold, kinky scene, but not unlike many hot and horny teens pushing closer and closer to going all the way. The double grope is sexy to her, and she says so, she gets all the attention, while the boys are observant and even sophisticated enough to question whether she does this to merely flirt, or if she’s just that way and that’s fine. Even if it’s driving them fucking crazy, they’re friends, they play “trust” games and they’re not going to go somewhere creepy-dark. Until they do. All of them.

While occupied with their gull on the beach, which they’ve harnessed and are teaching to fly again, a plump 15-year-old in a dowdy bathing suit, one who looks very much not in their crowd approaches, demanding to know what they’re doing with that bird. Rhoda (Catherine Burns) is lonely and looking for friends, but bold and even bossy, enough to where Sandy tries to wave her off with, “Oh, go suck your mother’s tit!” Rhoda continues to harangue the kids who simply want her to go away, but she’s unyielding about the gull:  “You’ve traumatized him. You’ve taken away his sense of identity.  He doesn’t know he’s a bird anymore.  Well, look at him squatting there. He probably thinks he’s a crab…. He can’t help it, you’ve turned him into a schizophrenic!” It’s a fascinating introduction – part future Shelley Winters in her more tragic roles (like A Place in the Sun), part likable, intelligent voice of reason (they are making that bird crazy). You have no idea where this character is heading, but the Perry’s deepen her, giving her a complexity that’s beyond just the chubby girl who feels left out. Her mother is dead – recounted in a brilliant monologue where you can practically smell the booze and the salt water, where you can see the thinness of her mother, feel a man grasping Rhoda’s backside, all rolled into this vivid, heartbreaking recollection. (Burns was Oscar nominated for this performance) Rhoda even writes a column for her school newspaper called “Feelings,” which sounds corny as anything, but given her monologue, she’s likely a fine writer.

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We will become wary of Sandy, if we weren’t already. She’s clobbered the gull’s head in, secretly (the boys find out), after the poor thing bites her. She’s upset that this damn gull turned on her after she saved his life, and so she simply kills it – either out of demented power, or hurt that anything could not love her, or both. (The novelist, Evan Hunter, also adapted Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds for Alfred Hitchcock, and I can’t help but think of the woman vs. birds subtext of that picture, and the one panic-stricken woman unfairly blaming the bird invasion on outsider Melanie Daniel, screaming: “I think you’re evil! Evil!”)  Here, Sandy demands and commands the gull: “I’m absolute ruler over your world and I have absolute power over you and what I say goes… Therefore when I say fly, you fly.” That sounds all tough-cute in the moment, perhaps, but it’s actually more fitting of her personality, which is revealed to be manipulative and cruel. Something is off and disturbed in her – or maybe she’s just not learned anything about empathy yet (her family life isn’t entirely stable, but then no one’s is) – or maybe she’s drunk on her feminine power. Whatever the case, the picture’s not going to give you an easy answer. Sandy and the boys put up with Rhoda, sometimes casually annoyed, or curious to see her in a funny situation and they set Rhoda up on one of Sandy’s self-humoring computer dates (with a sweet Puerto Rican man) whom they treat terribly. Rhoda is appalled by but remains “friends” with them, even as their silly games continue and, as smart as Rhoda is, she trusts them. Or is willing to. Again, she’s only 15-years old.

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She even trusts them to teach her to swim, and they, or rather Richard sticks to the task. The kids think it’s weird she can’t swim (given that her mother drowned one can understand why she is scared), and Richard starts taking a more tender, romantic interest in her. In one moment, the two lie on the beach and he waxes poetic about the ocean: “Wait till you see how beautiful it is down there. The colors, the way the light shines on things. The plants. Just the shape of things. You know, even a piece of broken glass can be like an emerald! And the fish move, gentle, you know, nice  … You do everything I tell you to do. You learn how to swim, and you learn how to dive, and you know what?” Rhoda asks, “What?” And Richard declares, romantically, “I’m gonna kiss you at the bottom of the sea.” It’s lovely and heartfelt the first time you see it, and maybe it is, but watching it a second time when you know what happens to Rhoda, it seems a bit sinister: “You do everything I tell you to do.”  Richard’s small soliloquy reflects the shifting tones of the movie – poetic and pretty to subtly disquieting. By film end, Rhoda’s sexual “awakening” will not be her choice.

Last Summer was the Perry’s fourth collaboration, their first three: David and Lisa, about two mentally ill teenagers (one can’t stand touch, the other suffers a split personality, talking in rhyme, the other can’t speak), Ladybug, Ladybug, about school panic under nuclear attack, in which a 12-year-old girl locks herself in a refrigerator and suffocates, and then The Swimmer (starring Burt Lancaster), a transfixing, powerfully allegorical and disturbing adaptation of John Cheever’s short story. The direction was taken away from Frank Perry on that picture (an uncredited Sydney Pollack shot the rest) but what you see is another expression of their lyricism and cynicism that, through the early 60s and up until 1970, made them two of the most unique and fascinating independent filmmakers of that time. Probing the alienation and/or rot within adolescence or in the supposed stability of suburbia, or of marriage, they were a potent pairing – their partnership ended with their divorce (Frank went on to make films without Eleanor, notably Doc, Play It As It Lays, Man on a Swing, and Mommie Dearest). Their last film is one of their best, Diary of a Mad Housewife, an especially lacerating portrait of matrimony, which also weaves a dreamlike, almost mentally insane spell of both abuse and masochism.

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Characters are trapped in the Perry’s films, literally, in refrigerators, or swimming pools, or in marriages and affairs giving no profound satisfaction or release. Burt Lancaster banging on the door of his empty house, as if he’s trying to break through to another consciousness or world (one he’ll never reach) while revealing how lonely and empty he feels, is a refrain in the Perry’s work. This all may sound incredibly depressing, but there’s a sly sense of humor to these pictures as well (Housewife in particular), a mordantly humorous touch that, at times, comes off like Sandy’s weird charm in Last Summer – disarming.

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In Last Summer, Rhoda is lonely but she’s certainly not empty, and her emotions are right there on the surface. In this particularly cruel universe, that makes her prey to the socially dominant Sandy, Peter and Dan.  She’s a kid who, like Cheever’s memory, “peers into the lighted houses of contentment and vitality,” only the other kids in Last Summer aren’t exactly content. In the cinema of the Perrys, no one is.

From my piece that ran at the New Beverly


John Ashley & High School Caesar

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From my piece that ran at the New Beverly

There’s an evocative scene in O’Dale Ireland’s juvenile delinquent B-grader High School Caesar that always sticks out to me as curious and near experimental. It’s not involving an oddly-crowded auto race or a pretty girl in a tight sweater or a leather-clad boy breaking a window after stealing a test (though that all occurs in the movie and sticks in one’s brain), no, it’s a short moment with a light fixture.  The handsome, bullying but well-organized Caesar of the title, Matt Stevens (heartthrob John Ashley), comes home after rigging his high school election for president and, upon walking into his parent’s large, lonely house, gazes up at a mini chandelier. It’s moving. Why, we wonder.  He wonders why. It makes a tinkling sound, heightening his loneliness.

Matt’s a delinquent, but he’s a rich kid, running the school like a little mafia, complete with leathered-up henchmen, threatening students, taking charge of pretty much everything (more than the teachers — adults are useless in this movie). He requires dues for dances, charges for stolen tests (smart) and makes promises to his creepy, gangly sidekick, the child-like Cricket (Steve Stevens). The big promise is the new cute blonde girl (Judy Nugent) everyone’s crushing on – for Cricket – no matter she finds him repulsive. Matt says Cricket can have her and so Cricket skulks around, waiting for his chance to nab her or romance her or whatever he plans to do with this chick. Cricket has no nerve when it comes to the girl, he can’t just tell her to come along now, so Cricket constantly brings up the rejection to Matt with a you-said-I-could-have-heeer whining.

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Cricket’s not going to get her, however, even with his closeness to Matt.  And they are close – you see Matt frequently touch Cricket, even tenderly, putting his hand on his knee and treating him paternally, one might even infer something sexual going on between them. Do they even like girls? Matt seems bored by his Bardot-meets-Ronnie-Spector-looking girlfriend (sweater alert) played by a fetching Daria Massey, and he full-on slaps the sweet blonde. Instead of getting the girl, Matt gets caught up in dominating her, to the point of nearly raping the poor young woman in the car. Cricket bolts, not to help her, but because he lost his shot. He’s a coward and worse than Matt and are we supposed to like this kid when he rats out his friend? I don’t. In a hauntingly shot scene, the poor girl is left running through the woods, hiding behind trees and struggling to get the hell out of there.

But here’s Matt’s sadness. A grown-up teen, all hairy-chested and confident at school, he’s a secretly forlorn phantom in his own house. His parents are never present and they don’t send love, they send checks. The enormous estate he lives on is all his own save for a sweet, old lady cook he charms and a manservant he berates.  The servant appears to hate him (he knows he’s a supercilious jerk) but his cheery cook calls him down for breakfast (she knows he’s heartbroken) using the in-house intercom from his bedroom. He tells her to play music, “Well, you know what I like. You pick it out,” he says grandly as he reads the paper like a man, his collar turned up like an asshole, and out roars something that sounds like a second-rate Nelson Riddle orchestration. For a guy who loves rockabilly (the movie opens with its raucous theme song, “High School Caesar” sung by Reggie Perkins) this seems odd and purposeful by the filmmaker. It’s an interesting touch.

But back to that mini chandelier. This is the second time we’ve seen him arrive home and, again, his parents aren’t there. But not only are his parents not there, his servants aren’t either, and he calls for them. No answer. He looks up at the moving crystals, pealing with perhaps just the wind breezing in from the once-open door or… is something going on upstairs? That is what I always wonder, as he yells for life in the place, looking at this thing moving, taunting him, damn light fixture. Either his parents are upstairs stomping around, or having sex, or his weird servants are up to something naughty (come now, these movies want you to have a dirty mind), which would be a fantastic moment had the film went there. I’m not even sure if it’s suggesting any such thought because no one is there, but the picture lingers on it just long enough for us to ponder Matt’s peculiar panic. He runs to his room, turns on jazz music, angrily throws money at his tortured reflection in the mirror and collapses on his bed, crying. The camera closes in on his bronzed baby shoes. It’s a packed moment in a movie that is intriguingly empty, like avant-garde filmmaker Martin Arnold could have stepped in and started making characters disappear a la his re-imaging of The Invisible Ghost (Deanimated) with Matt wandering around reacting to random things, like that light fixture. “The Invisible Teenager.”
 
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That is what’s fascinating when taking in some of these lower-budget movies – the unexpected moments and strangeness that occur, sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose, can create an artful effect. And it seems like the movie could go anywhere with talented, good-looking John Ashley in the lead – he’s morose and mean but likable and sympathetic enough for us to feel for him when he’s betrayed by his Brutus, A.K.A. Cricket. Ashley, a talented singer who cut some good singles with Dot Records, some with Eddie Cochran backing him up, and who sang in various pictures, (notably in Lew Landers’ AIP picture Hot Rod Gang, also featuring the great Gene Vincent) has both a swagger and depth here that shows he could have furthered his dramatic career in this moody mold. Instead, he had a full and interesting career (this man had stories) moving from 50’s AIP rebel and monster-movie boy; to a nice, small performance in Martin Ritt’s Hud; to AIP beach babe, appearing as Frankie Avalon’s best friend in the Beach Party movies (in an interview he noted how ridiculous he started to feel as a 30-year-old man playing teenager); to TV star (Straightaway) and memorable guest star (on The Beverly Hillbillies); to starring in and producing a series of Eddie Romero horror films made in the Philippines, starting with Brides of Blood in 1968. He also served as associate producer to Jack Hill’s The Big Doll House and producer and star of George Rowe’s Black Mamba, which featured a real corpse in an autopsy scene. Well, now, that’s beyond experimental. His 1958 picture, the stupid, surreal and surprisingly scary (I’m serious, the girl scares me) Frankenstein’s Daughter would approve.
 
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Anything weird in those low budget teen pictures like High School Caesar makes venturing over to the Philippines (reportedly, Ashley high-tailed it after a nasty divorce) a perfect kind of strange sense. Why not? You want to break out of your acting mold? Do it.  And make some intense movies. Becoming an important figure producing and appearing in pictures like the Blood Island films, to Black Mama, White Mama, Ashley was there long enough and entrenched so thoroughly in the details of production that he became associate producer on one of the craziest, toughest shoots in film history – Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, Apocalypse Now. Even if he’s not in the movie, his exasperation with those Beach Party movies gives him a majestic closure: “Charlie don’t surf.”

Ashley did not stop there though. He produced the highly successful, now retro-beloved 80’s TV show, The A-Team, and even supplied his voice as narrator: “Ten years ago a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground…” Yes, that’s him. The guy who once sang “Pickin’ On the Wrong Chicken” narrated The A-Team. It seems like a dream. Swirling all of this together, Ashley’s career is so varied and unusual and, in the end, profitable, that looking at his business maneuvers in High School Caesar, it’s no surprise that the Oklahoma-reared actor, supposedly spotted by John Wayne with a this-kid’s-got-something charisma, was such a natural.

And, in the end, so daring, so unafraid of making some of the silliest and outlandish and, in some cases, weirdest (and weirdly great) exploitation pictures.  

So, that light fixture in High School Caesar, that mysterious, distinctive shot in which Ashley expressed feeling and fear towards a clanging chandelier, merges just fine with the actor gazing at a yellow mist only to meet Satan, and then promptly selling his soul (in Eddie Romero’s absurd 1971 Beast of the Yellow Night).

It’s all a kind of art. And he saw merit in this. Asked why he was so successful in exploitation, Ashley said, “That’s an interesting question – I really don’t know. This is a terrible thing to admit, but maybe it’s that I always liked those movies.”

originally published at the New Beverly


Happy Birthday Marilyn Monroe

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Happy Birthday, Marilyn Monroe.

Here's a letter Thomas Pynchon wrote to his former Cornell friend and roommate, writer Jules Siegel, in the early 1960s. MM is brought up -- she "got out of the game" as Pynchon wrote.  Siegel published a portion of the letter in a 1965 issue of Cavalier magazine. He wrote that, "Pynchon, hiding out from the world in Mexico City, wrote on blue-line graph paper to a suicidal writer friend." 

Pynchon:

"When Marilyn Monroe got out of the game, I wrote something like, 'Southern California's special horror notwithstanding, if the world offered nothing, nowhere to support or make bearable whatever her private grief was, then it is that world, and not she, that is at fault.'

"I wrote that in the first few shook-up minutes after hearing the bulletin sandwiched in between Don and Phil Everly and surrounded by all manner of whoops and whistles coming out of an audio signal generator, like you are apt to hear on the provincial radio these days. But I don't think I'd take those words back.

"The world is at fault, not because it is inherently good or bad or anything but what it is, but because it doesn't prepare us in anything but body to get along with.

"Our souls it leaves to whatever obsolescences, bigotries, theories of education workable and un, parental wisdom or lack of it, happen to get in its more or less Brownian (your phrase) pilgrimage between the cord-cutting ceremony and the time they slide you down the chute into the oven, while the guy on the Wurlitzer plays Aba Daba Honeymoon because you had once told somebody it was the nadir of all American expression; only they didn't know what nadir meant but it must be good because of the vehemence with which you expressed yourself."

And here's my piece on Marilyn for the Los Angeles Review of Books -- how she was on my mind, and everywhere, even on a blanket in Death Valley...


Every Little Star -- Mulholland Dr.

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Mulholland Dr.
came to us haunted – a jilted starlet, a potential Magnificent Ambersons slash-up, a Barton Fink feeling refused for being too much a “Barton Fink” feeling. It was a rejected TV pilot, reportedly turned down for confusing narrative, actresses ludicrously deemed too old, disturbed images and Ann Miller sucking on a ciggie. By design, David Lynch was already echoing the Hollywood dream machine and movies reflecting our own dreams, those ghosts and futures, perhaps subconsciously, knowing all along this was to be a feature film fever dream. An overlapping reverie and reality; sex, suicide and silenco -- this is Peg Entwistle diving off that Hollywood sign and floating in a cloud of smiling female phantoms. It’s also America, the beautiful and the bizarre, its romanticism, dysfunction, cruelty and absurdity. We love movies. The world loves movies. But America’s often freakish, surreal desperation towards “glamour” when upturned can be as ugly and as horrifying as Winkie’s dream. And this masterpiece, Mulholland Dr., is as powerful and as prescient today, a lilting celluloid sickness real or imagined through the eyes of wide-eyed talent Betty (Naomi Watts, in a career-defining performance) turned to tragic Diane, angrily, heartbreakingly masturbating in a sad, sagging apartment.

It’s so gorgeous and so painful, so mysterious and in many ways, so recognizable (drive on the actual road, Mulholland, at night, and then walk from Western to Vermont, you’ll see…), that, whatever theory you ascribe to it, the picture does indeed reflect a reality that moves beyond the geography of Southern California and parks itself in our brains, tapping into our dreams, deepest fears, inscrutable natures, erotic desires, pool boys and dumped paint on jewelry.  Duality separates and intersects – just as W. H. Auden and James Ellroy oppositely entitled Los Angeles, for many of the same reasons, respectively: “The Great Wrong Place” and “The Great Right Place.” Well, we think we know one thing. We think: “This is the girl.”

Originally published at the BBC


Blood Milk & Bone: Patricia Highsmith

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Patricia Highsmith disliked food. Or, rather, she had a deeply problematic relationship with food that produced fascinating, unsettling musings, vividly intertwined with digestion and eating. Her short story, “The Terrapin,” in which a disturbed boy murders his mother with a kitchen knife after she boils a tortoise alive, Highsmith merged food issues with her own mother issues to a magnificently bent level of hysteria and horror: The dark side of domesticity. An anorexic in adolescence, and a slight woman her whole life, one who stocked liquor in her kitchen and nothing else, she found food tedious, frequently disgusting and even disturbing, blaming some of societal ills and politics on the results of food.  She wrote once: “the USA [is] suffering a prolonged attack of acid stomach, an irrepressible urge to throw up.”She pondered further, at another time, about how food affects us: “We live on the thin ice of unexplained phenomena. Suppose our food suddenly did not digest in our stomachs. Suppose it lay like a lump of dough inside us and poisoned us.”

That’s not a crazy supposition, really.

And yet, she loved a comforting warm glass of milk, something that would show up in The Price of Salt with a dreamy strangeness and a corporal sensuality. As she writes it, milk is a bit gross, but, romantic and powerful:

“Therese was propped on one elbow. The milk was so hot, she could barely let her lip touch it at first. The tiny sips spread inside her mouth and released a melange of organic flavors. The milk seemed to taste of bone and blood, of warm flesh, or hair, saltless as chalk yet alive as a growing embryo. It was hot through and through to the bottom of the cup, and Therese drank it down, as people in fairy tales drink the potion that will transform, or the unsuspecting warrior the cup that will kill. Then Carol came and took the cup, and Therese was drowsily aware that Carol asked her three questions, one that had to do with happiness, one about the store, and one about the future. Therese heard herself answering. She heard her voice rise suddenly in a babble, like a spring that she had no control over, and she realized she was in tears.”

This is just one aspect to the woman who was the oddity and sometimes genius named Patricia Highsmith, a cookie full of arsenic (if she heard it, she had to have appreciated the Odets/Lehman line of poisoned confection) who is full of so many contradictions that she is endlessly fascinating and frequently baffling. The preoccupation with the disgust for food shows a need for control, the drinking shows a need to let go—the push and pull of a hard heart and a woman full of passion—someone who both ran from and towards the voluptuous and often icky aspects of life. It’s not surprising that biographers (chiefly the great Joan Schenkar, whose gorgeously written and elucidating The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith greatly informed this piece) compared Highsmith to her most famous creation: Tom Ripley. Schenkar wrote, “Pat was back in the United States making her credo of  ‘quality’ the central obsession of the character who was to become, crudely speaking, her own fictional Alter Ego: Tom Ripley. (Pat was never ‘the woman who was Ripley,’ but she did give Ripley many of the traits she wished she had, as well as quite a few of her obsessive little habits.) Like Pat, Ripley began as a flunker of job interviews and a failure at self-respect. Like Pat, Ripley found his ‘quality’ of life in Europe.”

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After studying Highsmith’s life, you come away impressed, shocked, amused, and wondering if you could ever like this person. But liking her doesn’t matter; she didn’t want or need it necessarily – she’s not Willy Loman (Highsmith wrote in her diary of Arthur Miller’s character, “I find I have no sympathy for the individual whose spirit has not led him to seek higher goals … at a much younger age.”). She was a woman so intricate and so her own self (she couldn’t help but be her own self) that even she may not have understood how modern she was, or even fancied that idea (she loathed being pigeonholed).

Even by today’s standards, she’s still modern. Though she certainly wouldn’t have bandied a term like “feminist” around, she lived a progressive life, falling in love with women, never marrying to suit convention (though she did toy with the idea of marriage and with therapy for her homosexuality and, blessedly, that didn’t take), striving for both her own art and making good money while uttering some perfectly awful prejudices and then turning around and contradicting them. One of her best friends in high school was the young Judy Holliday (then, Judy Tuvim) and for decades Highsmith kept a photo of the Born Yesterday actress dressed in a man’s suit.

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There’s much discussion of Highsmith of late, all interesting, from Margaret Talbot’s excellent New Yorker piece about the real-life back story of  the brilliant Todd Haynes’ movie Carol to a New York Post headline screaming, “The drunk bisexual racist behind Cate Blanchett’s new movie.” All these years later, Highsmith is still pissing people off. 

Haynes’s superb, beautiful, and moving Carol, adapted from Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt, had created the buzz and for good reason—it was one of the best-reviewed movies of that year, a much-needed woman’s picture, and a gorgeous universal story about two women falling in love, with each other. Though Carol features an aggrieved husband, this is a movie about women, one could say (to Highsmith’s likely cringing) a feminist picture about females finding themselves, their work, their sexuality, and mutual adoration in the less permissive time of ’50s New York City, subverting the rules society has placed on them. There’s something of Highsmith, who published The Price of Salt in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, in both older Carol and younger Therese, in her often highly dramatic relationships and yearning. For although she was a woman who wrote brilliantly about murder and sociopaths, and though she was a woman frequently remembered as grumpy, bizarre, and downright caustic, she confessed of a swooning heartache and dream that’s so stirring it makes you want to cry:

“Persistently, I have the vision of a house in the country with the blond wife whom I love, with the children whom I adore, on the land and with the trees I adore. I know this will never be, yet will be partially that tantalizing measure (of a man) leads me on. My God and my beloved, it can never be! And yet I love, in flesh and bone and clothes in love, as all mankind.”

Her compulsions and contradictions were encyclopedic: food hater, snail lover, drinker, thinker, bigot, progressive, lover of women and younger women (rumor has it that The Price of Salt inspired Nabokov’s Lolita). And yet, while she was the very definition of independent (as a single woman, she abandoned America for Europe, where she lived, off and on, for the rest of her life), she was also ruled by an intensely close and corrosive relationship with her mother.

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According to Schenkar, Highsmith’s mother, Mary, was a chronic and histrionic creator of domestic scenes “so dreadful that Pat had to call in Dr. Auld, the local physician, to sedate them both. Pat reported that Mary had threatened her with a coat hanger—and each woman said things the other never forgot. Four years earlier, Mary Highsmith had written to her daughter: ‘I believe you would gladly put me in Dachau if it were possible without a minute’s thought.’”

Both a  sensualist and an obsessive-compulsive ascetic, Highsmith was a revolutionary: she lived a problematic, fascinating life as one would say a man would: complicated and sometimes unfathomable.

But then many women are like this, we just don’t hear or read about them as much. Or are allowed to admire them for it. At least for being odd. For all of her compelling complexities and provocative strangeness, even negative traits, I feel... the world and women need more characters.

originally published at the Daily Beast, 2015